Detail from a Chinese lacquer throne
Early 18th century
Softwood and polycromed lacquer
Asian lacquer comes from the sap of the lac tree. It is a thick, sticky substance rather like honey. Artists apply many thin layers
of lacquer on wood objects, allowing each layer to harden for weeks before adding another. By applying layers in different colors,
artists could carve down through the layers to reveal various colors. Because of the time and intensive labor required to produce carved
lacquerware objects, they were very expensive luxury items. But the fashion for lacquerware during the 18th century caused a high
demand all over China. While this box was probably produced in the imperial workshops in Beijing, there were also imperially supervised
workshops in cities in the western and southern provinces.
Artists often decorated luxury objects with images and with symbols of prosperity and good fortune. Rather than tell stories
literally (that would be too obvious), the Chinese used familiar symbols and images that recalled the story.
Besides evoking stories, symbols can reveal the intentions and views of Heaven. Such symbols often appeared in everyday contexts. A series
of earthquakes meant that Heaven was displeased; an early blossoming or the appearance of a crane might herald the coming of good
fortune. By using symbols such as the peach, artists recorded a general wish for other heavenly signs of impending happiness and long life.
Detail of peach scene from the
Peaches suggest many things in traditional Chinese culture. They were considered good medicine for everything from rheumatism to
coughs. Children wore peach stones carved in the shapes of locks around their necks to keep them from harm. The peach is commonly
associated with springtime, marriage, fertility, and long life.
The superb craftsmanship, intricate composition, and elaborate detail of this presentation box are common features of the
fine lacquerware produced during the reign of emperor Ch'ien Lung. It was probably made as a gift for a member of the nobility or
even for the emperor.
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from the Presentation Box
This presentation box is covered with many symbols that wish its recipient good luck and happiness. On top is a large character meaning
"spring," which was considered one of the most fruitful and pleasant seasons. The peach was another symbol for springtime.
Below that is an elegant bowl filled with symbols of wealth - coins and rhinoceros horns. Illustrated on the sides are legends
concerning immortality. The combination of signs of spring, wealth, children, and long life suggests that this presentation box was
made as a wedding gift or a birthday present.
The front of the box shows the legend of Hsi Wang-mu's giant peach trees in the Land of the Immortals. The land is a beautiful
paradise of lofty mountains, cool wavy seas, and lush vegetation. On the left, a peach tree grows out of the side of a cliff; the
immense peaches dwarf the tree itself. Luckily for the immortals, the branches hang low enough that the peaches can be picked.
Two young boys and a wrinkled old man pick the luscious fruit. The old man is the god of longevity. His staff bears the character shou (show),
meaning "long life." Standing on a ledge, one boy picks the peaches and hands them to the god of longevity, who cradles them
in a long cloth. Behind the old man, the other child picks off the leaves and places the peaches in a basket.
Although the scene looks natural, it is carefully and decoratively composed. The figures stand on ground that is made up of a
of squares and small flowers. The waves are reduced to a repetitive weave of diagonal lines.
The artist, in a typical Chinese fashion, has created a sense of depth by tilting up the ground plane, so that more distant forms are set
higher in the composition. The stream winds upward into the distance.
shifts within the scene so that one can simultaneously look up at the mountains and down on the heads of the figures.
The artist also used color and texture to distinguish between
forms. The black areas, deeply carved, form the water and the sky. Closer, the landscape forms a red backdrop for the figures and
peaches, which, though also red, are carved from an even shallower layer of lacquer.